Today’s “Point of View” comes to us from Jessica Melchior, a third grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary School in the Schalmont Central School District. It is the transcript of her remarks given at the “Save Our Schools” advocacy event that took place at South Colonie High School on February 26, 2015.
I am not against Common Core. I am not against APPR. I am not against assessments. These reforms can inform teaching in a professional learning community to meet the needs of all learners. As a veteran, national board certified teacher I have seen these ideas evolve and grow. I see their ability to reform education, not by tearing it down but by fostering it.
However, the governor has hijacked these ideas, these crucial aspects of the educational community. On our quest to race from here to there, to compete with other countries, to vilify the people who spend their days in service of others; we have failed to reap the rewards of these ideas. We have digressed into partisan bickering about common core, turned APPR into a witch hunt and lost sight of the real purpose of assessment in a professional learning community. As the self-proclaimed lobbyist for the students, Governor Cuomo has missed the mark. The governor consistently fails to recognize what is truly important in our classrooms… and in our lives.
Last spring I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was on March 27th, only a couple of weeks before my 3rd Graders would be taking their first New York State assessment. I went from one day focusing on my students to the next wondering whether I would ever get to return to a classroom again. I had taught and they had practiced basic test taking strategies, I had helped them see themselves as readers, modeled how to write extended responses and we had shared a variety of mathematical strategies to solve problems. I used yoga and visualization to help students cope with test anxiety. But in the end, I couldn’t be there for them when they faced a test that was leaps and bounds more challenging than any practice they had taken or any experience they had ever had in a classroom. I wasn’t there for them when they reached frustration points within the first few minutes of the test or when they put their heads down to cry because there was no way they could finish in time.
Why would we put our students through these assessments? In the past I believe the state tests have improved education by driving us to increase rigor in our curriculum and standards. I’ve taught valuable strategies for test taking and for coping with stress. We celebrate successes and learn from mistakes. And it makes sense to link the assessments with Common Core. But that is not the full picture; these assessments represent a rigor that is above even our increased grade level common core standards. The assessments are built upon standards that begin in Pre-K and increase in complexity. However, students had to start with whatever grade they were in when the new tests were implemented. Meanwhile, the test-maker, Pearson, is being left unchecked; the Governor has re-negged on promises to parents and teachers; and teachers have become scapegoats for poor results. The Governor proposes an equation that makes no mathematical sense; requiring that test scores account for 50% of a teacher’s performance grade but then adding the caveat that poor test scores automatically means a rating of “ineffective”. Cuomo and Commissioner King have brought nothing but stress and heartache to the educational community, with the exception of Pearson executives and privatized schools. Commissioner King decreed that there should be no “trick questions” yet he allowed for multiple choice questions with 16 lines of text for students to read. They use literature by authors like Daniel Pinkwater which were never intended for multiple choice questions or essays. They selected texts deliberately above students’ grade levels for a test that is supposed to measure grade level achievement. They wrote multiple step problems to assess a single math standard even though solving the problem would require understanding of several standards. They graded teachers, principals and schools based on tests and cut scores that can change on a political or corporate whim. The scores of these assessments are not even shared with teachers until the following year, and even then the data we receive is so limited that it cannot even be used to adjust instruction. This process is anything but transparent!
I am not only a teacher, but also a parent of two boys; a 3rd Grader and a Kindergartner. My 3rd Grader uses Common Core Math Strategies naturally and is an avid reader but I wonder what he will do when the questions become too confusing and the texts become too challenging. Will we be testing his true ability or how much of this he will put up with before he shuts down? I wonder how many tests my Kindergartner will take before he gets to 3rd Grade. If the purpose of all these SLOs and state tests are truly to inform his teacher’s instruction or to individualize his needs; that is fine by me. If the purpose is to assess his teachers, at his expense, without any benefit to his learning than it has no place in the classroom or our educational system. All kids need to learn, but these tests are becoming a distraction.
When I returned to my classroom after 10 months of doctor appointments, second opinions, surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments I faced a new class of 3rd Graders. They had built a classroom community without me and I needed to find my place in it. No amount of common core, APPR or state tests could get in our way. We needed to work together. I would love to invite Governor Cuomo and our legislators into my classroom to see the community we have made and to see real learning taking place. You won’t see my students filling in bubbles on a scantron. You will see authentic tasks that imbed learning; you will see teachable moments and you will see cooperative learning.
I am a human being. Our children are humans. We all deserve better than this. Let’s use assessment how it was meant to be used; as a formative or summative tool in a professional learning community. Let’s judge teachers on things that matter. Let’s not take common core out of context for a political agenda. Let’s not forget, Governor, teachers are human beings and their students are too. Enough is enough!